Obama's Cairo speech yields fruit in Damascus, a year later

President Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 opened the door for a flurry of grass-roots diplomacy that supporters hope will lead to broader rapprochement.

Ola RifaiAP/File
A Syrian barber, reflected in a mirror, watched President Obama's historic June 4, 2009 Cairo speech live from his shop in Damascus, Syria.. Muslims greeted Mr. Obama's speech as a mark of a changed American attitude toward them and a new policy on the Middle East, but many insisted they still need to see action to back up his words.

Public diplomacy is taking off in Syria, where an initial thaw in relations with the US has opened up new opportunities – despite frustration that Washington has yet to send a new ambassador more than a year after promising to renew diplomatic ties.

This week, a new US non-profit organization – Open Hands Initiative – started its first project in Syria. Disabled children from the US will meet with their Syrian counterparts in Damascus, producing a comic book featuring a disabled hero, while an American music producer will work with Syrian artists to record material to promote abroad.

Open Hands is not alone. Last week, Houston-based American Voices ran its YES (Youth Excellence on Stage) Academy ran a workshop for Syrian musicians, culminating in two concerts.

Obama's Cairo speech opened a window in Damascus

The flurry of activity is new. Organizations found it almost impossible to work in Syria under the previous US administration.

But circumstances have changed since President Obama came to power and made an historic speech to the Muslim world a year ago.

“It started with Obama's speech in Cairo,” says Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian social analyst. “His message caused enough of a change to allow US organizations to work here.”

The aims of these organizations go beyond education or culture to diplomacy. Many Americans are concerned about improving their image abroad.

“We can play a unique role in restoring America's image around the world,” says Jay Snyder, the founder of Open Hands and a member of the US government's advisory commission on public diplomacy, in an e-mail. “People recognize that US-Syrian relations are at a critical moment and public diplomacy and people-to-people dialogue can play a critical part.”

Can such programs effect broad change?

The current stalling in rapprochement between Syria and the US increases the need for these projects, say analysts. Despite initial hope in Obama, many Syrians have become frustrated with the US as Congress has stalled the confirmation of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. In May, US sanctions were renewed.

In this context some analysts doubt how effective these programs can be at promoting wider change.

“Syrians view the US through the prism of Israeli-Palestine conflict and until policies change there, the effect of private interventions will be limited,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland.

Initiatives could improve US view of Syria, too

Others disagree, pointing to the effect they can have the local level.

A new generation of Syrian youth growing up in a globalized age – where coffee costs $4 even in Damascus – have a different mind set.

“People here distinguish between people and politics, especially young people who are less concerned with politics than their parents,” says John Ferguson, the founder of American Voices, who has run projects around the world since founding the organization in 1993. “They want to have new experiences and to use those to judge for themselves what they hear about the US.”

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma believes the initiatives will have mutual benefits, also affecting how Washington views Syria.

“This sort of soft diplomacy – as well as rising tourism – will have an effect on Washington in time,” he says. “There is so much ignorance about Syria – some of which can be blamed on the Syrian authorities – but most people who visit love it and wonder why it is demonized.”

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